Interview with Lori Epstein, Senior Illustrations Editor, National Geographic Society on National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs that Squeak, Soar, and Roar
By Sharon Salluzzo
If you are looking for a way to interest children in poetry, you need look no further than the National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry. It is lush, rich, and filled with crisp photographs of animals in all shapes and sizes carefully selected from the National Geographic files by Lori Epstein, the Senior Illustrations Editor for the Children's Book Division. They accompany 200 poems selected by J. Patrick Lewis, U.S. Children's Poet Laureate. There is great diversity in the animals included, from the largest to the smallest found on land, in the sea, and in the air. Works by many of my favorite poets are included. Classic poems by Carl Sandburg, Rudyard Kipling, and Emily Dickinson are here. Contemporary poets have their place as well. There is Jack Prelutsky, Valerie Worth, Jane Yolen, and Joyce Sidman, to name just a few. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Lori about this collection.
"This is the kind of job every photo editor wants," said Lori who has worked at The National Geographic Society for seven and a half years. "It is so exciting to have been given this opportunity," she continued. The book was a collaboration between J. Patrick Lewis and the National Geographic team of Jennifer Emmett, Project Editor, Eva Absher-Schantz, Book Designer, and Lori. "I want you to make this a showpiece of photography," Jennifer told Lori. The National Geographic team approached J. Patrick Lewis with the idea of bringing poetry and photographs together. The Poet Laureate delivered his first draft in two weeks, a remarkably short time for a poet who is in high demand. Not only had he selected the poems, but he had arranged them into categories. As Lori read the poems, she jotted down notes to help her as she selected the images that would best convey the poem and the animal. The photographs for this book were selected from National Geographic Stock, National Geographic My Shot, and Shutterstock. National Geographic Stock is the Society's archives of anything shot for any NG publication by staffers and hired photographers. Outtakes are included as well. As you can imagine, there are thousands upon thousands of pictures. National Geographic My Shot archives photographs sent by amateur and professional photographers to the special NG website. Included, too, are the photographs submitted in the hopes of being selected for "Your Shot" in the National Geographic Magazine. Both National Geographic My Shot and Shutterstock introduce talented photographers and new images to the staff at the National Geographic Society. With so many images, where did Lori begin? She started with a keyword search in the photographic databases and looked for images that matched up with her initial notes. "I was sifting for nuggets," said Lori. "I was looking to see if the poem and image would marry well; if the photograph spoke to the poem; and if together they spoke to the reader. You know it is going well when the pictures are just singing!"
The pairings of pictures and poems is just one aspect of creating a book. The layout becomes critical. The entire team provided input, and Lori and Eva worked closely together. They had to contend with how many poems and how many photographs would be on each page. Sometimes there are multiple poems for a photograph; often, a picture corresponding to a single poem. Each turn of the page must offer variety to the reader. Since a book is read from left to right, much thought was given to the page arrangement and the animal pairings. J. Patrick's animal groupings were very helpful but the book layout needed to go a step further. The animal pairings had to make sense. The poems on each spread had to go well together. "It is important to have variety in each spread. You need to pace the book and offer diversity when the page is turned. You need to give the reader breathing space. You don't want to tire their eyes out," explained Lori.
The book layout was an organic process. Each spread was put up on a wall. The team looked at it and then solicited feedback from others within the Children's Book Division of National Geographic. "When you work so closely on a book, you can sometimes overlook the obvious," Lori continued. "Other people, who are not involved in the process, often see things that you wouldn't. When they mention them, you see the issue. Collaboration was essential in creating this book. The goal was to see that each page was an experience for the reader, and the book as a whole was also an experience."
There is so much more here than simply selecting "cute" photos of animals. Ever mindful of National Geographic's mission to encourage people to care for the planet and to explore the world around them, Lori's seventeen years of professional experience helped her peruse the photographs. There were times when she knew right away that she had the right image. Other times it would take days to find the right picture of a popular animal. She kept a folder on each animal which held anywhere from 2 to 20 images. Lori and Eva worked closely together and would go back and forth on certain pictures and poems. They would discuss the effect that Lori was hoping to achieve. With that in mind, Eva might say, for example, "I need a new eel picture," depending on the page layout. "It was fun to work closely with Eva on the design of the book."
Lori admitted to me that prior to this book she was not a poetry fan. She had always been confused by it: what were the hidden meanings; what was the symbolism, etc. As she read these selected by J. Patrick Lewis, Lori saw so many different styles of poetry: some funny, some serious, some were even stories. The reader can simply turn to a page to read a poem and study the photograph. If someone is looking for a particular poem or animal, there are four ways to search: the Title Index, the Poet Index, the First Line Index, and the Subject Index. Readers are encouraged to write their own poems. As part of the back matter, there are descriptions of various types of poems to get them started and a bibliography to help them with wordplay. Just as there are styles of poetry, there are styles of photographs, too. Lori's professional eye sees what will connect between the image and a child. She takes into account how the image is photographed. The perspective and composition are unique experiences. That particular moment, frozen in time, presents a multi-sensory opportunity. "It is a special moment, an experience that a child can have with that animal through photography. There is an intimacy with the animal that children would not ordinarily have. How does this picture make you feel about elephants, or orangutans, or an octopus?" asks Lori. While National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry will be shared by parents and their children, and by teachers with their students, it is the child reader that Lori had in mind as she worked. She would ask herself, "Will kids like this? Will they find it engaging? Will they want to turn the page?" It would seem that J. Patrick Lewis asked himself the same questions as he chose the kid-appealing variety of poems for this anthology. It succeeds in taking kids back to the National Geographic mission: to get kids excited about the world around them. And as Lori succinctly states, "National Geographic does this better than anyone."
National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar
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